From white tiger to ISIS terror: Does online make a tamasha of them all?

By Abhishek Saha, Hindustan Times

Soon after Maqsood was mauled to death inside the white tiger enclosure in Delhi zoo, photographs and a video of the horrific incident, clicked and recorded by onlookers, came into the public domain. Blurring certain parts of the frame, the video was put up by most media organisations and soon went viral on the internet, propelled by the social media. The Facebook post by Hindustan Times about the video got more than 5,200 Likes and 1,050 Shares .

A day later, however, another grisly video of the incident surfaced. The Indian Express carried a short front page story about the video, and noted that it revealed the zookeeper had tried to lure the tiger away from Maqsood, but failed. This video, too, quickly found a prominent place on the internet. It wasn’t blurred and clearly showed Maqsood’s fatal encounter with the beast—the man begging the tiger to leave him, a zoo keeper asking the tiger to get away, people shouting and throwing stones, and finally the tiger catching the 20-year-old by the neck and running about the enclosure.

Mobile phones with good-resolution cameras that many onlookers had ensured that Maqsood’s tragedy—the terror he experienced, the frightening death he died—is played out on our computer and smart-phone screens at the click of a mouse button. For many who watched the frightful non-blurred footage of Maqsood’s death on the internet, it was perhaps nothing but another interesting viral video.

Irrespective of whether the videos of Maqsood getting mauled served any purpose of investigation into the macabre incident or understanding animal psychology, what it surely did was douse one’s curiosity for the bizarre. By allowing millions to watch how Maqsood met his frightful death, these disturbing videos turned his death into a tamasha, an act of circus which ultimately went wrong.

In an incident similar to the Delhi zoo one, a man was mauled to death by two Royal Bengal tigers in Guwahati zoo when he put his hand into the enclosure to click a close up picture in December 2007. Coincidentally, The Hindu’s Northeast photographer was present at the zoo on some other assignment and captured the entire sequence of events–the tigers seizing the victim’s hand, the zoo officials trying to beat the tigers with sticks, and the victim collapsing outside the enclosure wall, his hand severed.

The next day, the newspaper published a black and white photograph of the tragic incident and the following paragraph was incorporated in the report.

“The newsroom of The Hindu was caught in a dilemma whether to publish the disturbing pictures. A consensus favoured the publication of a picture for its educative role about safe behaviour in a zoo. To reduce the traumatic effect on readers, the picture is published in black and white rather than in colour.”

But back in 2007, things were completely different. According to the data made available by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) there are more than 918 million mobile phone subscribers in India today while in 2007-08 there were only around 260 million. Moreover, while the smartphone market was in its nascent stages in 2007-08, now there is an all-time peak with an estimated 111 million users in the country (according to a report in The Economic Times).

Unlike Maqsood’s videos, the only authentic visuals of the Guwahati zoo tragedy that reached the world were from the camera of a professional. And hence, certain editorial restraints could be enforced. But in today’s world, penetrated by smart-phones with high-speed internet connections, the rules of the game have experienced a paradigm shift.

The Internet comes with immense potentialities—anything and everything, without any editorial judgement, can be uploaded by an individual and consequently, reach millions within a very short period of time. The vast ocean of information uploaded by individual users is completely uncensored and can spread across the world instantaneously even the content is in bad taste, violent, offensive or unverified.

Last year, after the Boston Marathon bombings, a Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who had gone missing about a month before the bombings, was misidentified on several social media platforms as a suspect before the FBI identified the actual ones—Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Though the popular online forum Reddit issued a public apology later, Tripathi’s family had to face a lot of humiliation due to the social media campaigns identifying Sunil as the Boston bomber.    In fact, his dead body was found floating on a river on April, 23.

“…it shows yet again the power and danger of the Internet’s wide open-publishing capabilities. Information may want to be free, but there’s often a cost associated with unverified facts that are widely distributed at rapid speed,” said a report on the incident  in the Time magazine.

Though the necessity of a free and uncensored internet is of paramount importance, it can be argued that perhaps, at times, the internet must carry out self-regulatory exercises. And a recent example of that is how Twitter and YouTube reacted after the beheading video of American journalist James Foley went viral.

Soon after the video of James Foley being beheaded by the ISIS went viral on the internet, his cousin, Kelly Folly gave a desperate call on Twitter. He wrote, “Don’t watch the video. Don’t share it. That’s not how life should be.” Soon, Twitter and YouTube cracked down on the video as best as they could.

A report by CNN noted that, “There’s a big difference between individual user decisions and institutional decisions by Twitter and YouTube. For the Web sites, blocking objectionable content is a form of editing.”

And this ‘editing’, a certain self-regulation by the social media, was needed to stop the brutal act from becoming a spectacle of terror, to prevent James Folly’s decapitation from being watched and re-watched only to satisfy the human urge for the grotesque and the absurd.

Maqsood’s death, unfortunately, did not incite any such reaction. Thus, whenever someone gets curious about how big cats maul people falling into their enclosures, he or she can search Google and Maqsood will be there cowering in front of the white tiger and begging for his life.


This piece was published in Hindustan Times on September 28, 2014.